Monday, October 19, 2009

Tom Wolfe and The Beatles (sorta)

A short while back, I learned that the incomparable Tom Wolfe had written about famed radio disc jockey Murray the K, i.e., "The Fifth Beatle," in his debut collection of essays from 1965 entitled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (but who else?). So I borrowed the book from the library and soon realized that it contained another profile piece that's relevant to the blog: "The First Tycoon of Teen," which is about that brilliant producer and current California prison inmate Phil Spector. Both essays are terrific reads, and both are Wolfe-ian to the core: The prose pops and shines, the topics come to life in a hurry, and, to the extent that the focus of his writing stays where it belongs, Wolfe's personal opinion of his subjects remains behind the scenes.

But it is interesting to note the differences - some of them subtle, others more apparent - in Wolfe's treatment of each personality. In "The Fifth Beatle," Murray the K is undoubtedly the central figure, and Wolfe doesn't give short shrift to the DJ's eminent status: "... he is the king of the Hysterical Disc Jockeys ...." With an admiring tone he describes the K's manic on-air technique and his enthusiasm for the craft. And it's clear too that Wolfe credits Kaufman (K=Kaufman) for his puckish savvy in corralling much of the Beatles' attention at their first American press conference and thus latching onto the band. It's difficult to argue with what followed: massive success for the K.

Yet, at the same time, I detected an undercurrent of something like benign skepticism in the way that Wolfe details Kaufman's rise. It's like he views the DJ, with his far from insubstantial talent and personality, as still being closer to ordinary than not (and certainly closer to ordinary than Kaufman himself believes). The K is very skilled and likable, sure, oddballish, perhaps, but he's not uniquely interesting - he's not the story in his own right. After all, his coming to prominence (that is, major prominence - the kind that would find him in this profile) did occur in the context of larger, more consequential events: Beatlemania and radio's changing role in America. These are the stories; Kaufman was more of a role player who used some schoolyard opportunism to insinuate himself into the Beatles' narrative and then skyrocket to fame. Kudos to him for that. But, again, the truly compelling action was elsewhere.

Sometimes Wolfe conveys his skepticism with an innocuous observation. Consider this line: "He (Kaufman) not only plays Beatles records all the time, the whole show sort of moves in the medium of the Beatles." It's both a statement of fact and a light jab. Elsewhere, he applies thick sarcasm: "Sure, Murray the K may have been boxed in, but a lot of times radio stations don't show much appreciation for the esoterica of disc jockey competition, just as nobody else out there does." In the same vein, the several mentions that Wolfe makes of Kaufman's attachment to his straw hat have a certain mocking feel to them. It's like he's saying, "So you style yourself an eccentric, and this hat is what you have to show for it?" I think Wolfe was just looking for more from his subject. He doesn't openly air this, of course; that's not his style. But especially after reading "The First Tycoon of Teen" and noting the different tone that Wolfe often uses, it appears that Kaufman didn't fully win over his profiler.

Spector, on the other hand, seems to deeply fascinate Wolfe. And for good reason. Here's a guy barely into his twenties who has become a-mover-and-a-shaker in an industry run by stuffy, cigar-sucking suits. As Wolfe writes, "This kid is practically a baby, twenty-three years old, f'r chrissake, and he has made two million dollars, clear." In other words, he's the story. His skills are prodigious and vigorously applied: "Spector does the whole thing. He writes the words and the music, scouts and signs up the talent. He takes them out to a recording studio in Los Angeles and runs the recording session himself. He puts them through hours and days of recording to get the two or three minutes he wants. Two or three minutes out of the whole struggle." And his style, demeanor, mode of thinking, and ticks (like sensing doom on a flight and having it cancelled) all point to a bona fide eccentric (if only Wolfe had known). Thus the story springs from Spector and Spector alone.

All this and yet, as Wolfe notes with much affection, the kid really seems to be genuine. Cynicism wasn't his starting point; he cared about his trade for the right reasons: "It was never a simple question of him taking a look at the rock and roll universe from the outside and exploiting it. He stayed within it himself. He liked the music." And he liked the music because he was still a kid himself. It's this dynamic - that of a very young man operating with dominance in an adult world - that so captivates Wolfe. He returns to it again and again (Murray the K, by contrast, is in his early 40s* - how bourgeois). The wunderkind Spector followed his own playbook, defied the industry overlords, and unapologetically defended his art. In fact, he was smitten with it. He's a singular talent, a soaring, extravagant success, and a steadfastly weird dude. Of course Wolfe couldn't help himself.

*Wolfe erroneously put Kaufman's age at 38. Thanks to the commenter Peter for pointing out that mistake.


Peter said...

When the Beatles arrived in '64, Murray the K was already a huge success in the New York radio market. He had the highest ratings of any rock DJ, had established a virtual monopoly on live shows with the three or four a year presentations at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, had released a series of compilation record albums, co-written "Splish Splash," and been responsible for discovering both Darin and Dionne Warwick, among others. When "the Fab Four" arrived, Epstein actively sought out Kaufman to leverage his prominence and use it to the Beatles' advantage. Wolfe missed all that AND his age -- in 1964, Kaufman was 42.

Barry Lenser said...

Thanks for your comments, Peter. I don't know if you've read "The Fifth Beatle," but Wolfe does sing the praises of Murray the K (sometimes in a qualified manner), and notes how he was "murdering the competition" well before his run-in with the Beatles and had achieved success on diverse fronts. But he also goes on to say that Kaufman lost his dominance with the rise of the All Americans at WABC and the Good Guys at WMCA. Then the Beatles arrived, and his fortunes changed dramatically for the better. I don't know how accurate this telling is. Maybe Wolfe was just trying to play up the importance/drama of that meeting to make his story more compelling. You're clearly far, far more informed on the matter than I am. The point of my post was just to highlight the different treatment that Wolfe gave to Kaufman and Spector. I found it quite interesting. But thanks again for your comments. All good to know, especially the one about Epstein seeking out Kaufman. Wolfe describes the encounter between Kaufman and the Beatles as a bit more random than perhaps it really was.